The Contender


The Contender - Double Sided
Joan Allen as Laine Hanson
Gary Oldman as Shelly Runyon
Jeff Bridges as President Jackson Evans
Sam Elliott as Kermit Newman
Christian Slater as Reginald Webster
William L. Petersen as Jack Hathaway
Philip Baker Hall as Oscar Billings
Saul Rubinek as Jerry Tolliver
Mike Binder as Lewis Hollis
Robin Thomas as William Hanson

The Contender has an incredible cast with first-rate performances from Allen, Bridges, and Oldman. However, the plot is predictable and your political views may affect your enjoyment of the movie.

After the Vice President of the United States dies, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) searches for a replacement for him. He considers Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) who recently attempted to save a woman from drowning after a car accident. However, despite the heroic effort, he opts for Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). She will be the first woman to hold that office. She is to be the President’s “swan song” and the thing he is remembered for when he leaves office.

However, Senator Shelly Runyon has other ideas. He is strongly opposed to Senator Hanson taking over the role of VP and plans to skewer her during Senate hearings. This seems to be for no other reason than the fact that she’s a woman.

Runyon digs up accusations that Hanson was involved in a college sexual romp and proceeds to drag her name through the mud. The game of good old American politics is played and both sides are ruthless, yet Senator Hanson attempts to stick by her morals throughout the process. Can she survive without sinking to the level of her opponents?

What Worked:
This film has an absolutely incredible cast. They are truly first rate. You can count on Joan Allen getting another Academy Award nomination for her role in this film. She smartly plays the senator and gives the character just the right mix of toughness and sensitivity that is needed. She perfectly gets across all the anger and frustration the character goes through during the Senate hearings. There’s one particular scene where Senator Hanson has the perfect bit of dirt to throw back at the attacking Runyon. You can see the internal conflict on her face as she must decide between holding back and sticking to her morals or stooping to her opponent’s level.

Jeff Bridges was a great President. He gave the role a healthy mix of humor and drama. The character is constantly eating in every scene and he seems to be more infatuated with the White House cooking than his role as leader. However, Bridges gives us those great dramatic moments where you see how the character could become President.

Gary Oldman is definitely one of the greatest actors of our time. He is so incredibly diverse in his choice of roles and he is totally convincing in every one. His characters in Dracula, The Professional, The Fifth Element, JFK, and other roles are all so different that you almost don’t realize that they are all the same actor. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t had as much recognition as he deserves. He plays the role of the evil senator perfectly and with total believability.

Sam Elliot does a great job as the assistant to the President. Christian Slater and the other supporting actors also deliver fine roles and add just the right touch to this film.

The movie also has really clever dialogue from the President. For example, when his ball goes off to the side during a game of bowling, he makes a joke about how his ball seems to follow his political views – they go to the left. Then Hanson’s little boy tells the President that the job of Vice President is much better because nobody tries to shoot the VP. There are clever little touches throughout that make it enjoyable.

What Didn’t Work:
Your political views may greatly effect your enjoyment of this film. Democrats are generally portrayed as the heroes while the Republicans are generally portrayed as the villains. Not surprising considering Hollywood’s political views. So it may be difficult for the viewer to totally throw out their opinions on abortion, the death penalty, and free range chickens while watching this film. Towards the end of the movie, Senator Laine Hanson delivers a heartfelt ultra-liberal speech with rousing music. Instead of being swept away in her emotional moment of moral high ground, I was thinking she was full of crap. My bad, but there you go.

And I’m so incredibly sick of American politics and corrupt politicians, I had a hard time immersing myself into the backstabbing and games depicted on the screen. It tainted my enjoyment of the film. It’s no fault of the filmmakers, just bad timing for me as a viewer.

I also found the plot of the film to be somewhat predictable. Having seen the trailer and commercials, it was not hard to see the major plot twists coming a mile away. Luckily, the performances of the actors made it bearable.

Finally, the directing seemed inconsistent to me. One moment it would be a standard shot of film. The next it looked like the camera was being operated by a hyperactive 4 year old on a sugar high. The camera would shake and do weird zooms. The cameramen on COPS seem to have better control. I thought the reason for the shaky-cam was to add emotional effect or highlight the scenes, but it took place at random boring moments in the film. I will say, though, there were some well set up shots. For example, Senator Hanson jogs among gravestones in Arlington Cemetery and her outfit makes her vaguely resemble one of the stones. Foreshadowing? Then there are other clever camera setups that were well done.